General Motors CEO Mary Barra testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington before the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Oversight and Investigation.
General Motors CEO Mary Barra testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington before the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Oversight and Investigation. (Photo: Evan Vucci/AP.)

General Motors Co. is revving up its charm offensive in Washington amid congressional scrutiny of the automaker’s handling of an ignition-switch defect, turning to a leading law firm lobbying shop for help.

Holland & Knight will advocate for GM on “oversight and legislation pertaining to [the] automobile recall,” according to lobbying registration paperwork the firm filed with Congress on Monday. The company this year has recalled 2.6 million vehicles and tied 13 deaths to the ignition-switch problem, triggering litigation and bringing questions from Capitol Hill.

The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in May announced that GM would pay the maximum $35 million for failing to promptly tell the public about defects that the company’s customers complained of for a decade. The announcement came a month after Mary Barra, who became GM’s chief executive officer in January, defended her efforts to address the problem before House and Senate committees probing her company’s response to the defects. She told lawmakers that GM “acted without hesitation” when she became aware of the problem and “will not shirk from our responsibilities now and in the future.”

At Holland & Knight, GM will use partners Rich Gold and Paul Bock, along with former Rep. Gerry Sikorski, D-Minn., and senior policy advisers Karl Koch and Lynn Cutler. Gold leads Holland & Knight’s public policy and regulation practice, while Sikorski is the firm’s government section leader.

Gold was not immediately available for comment. GM spokeswoman Heather Rosenker issued a written statement: “As most major companies do, GM hires new consultants from time to time and we look forward to working with Holland and Knight.”

In March, when House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., announced that his panel had opened an investigation into GM, he suggested that Congress might need to pass legislation to better ensure that automakers and regulators properly respond to safety problems.

Upton said the Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability, and Documentation (TREAD) Act, which Congress passed in 2000, was intended to improve the government’s ability to protect against safety defects. The legislation, which Utpon sponsored, requires automakers to submit “early warning” reports to NHTSA about potential defects and makes the companies criminally liable for intentionally failing to report problems.

“Did the company or regulators miss something that could have flagged these problems sooner?” Upton said. “If the answer is yes, we must learn how and why this happened, and then determine whether this system of reporting and analyzing complaints that Congress created to save lives is being implemented and working as the law intended.”

Lawmakers introduced the Early Warning Reporting System Improvement Act in the Senate and the Motor Vehicle Safety Act in the House in response to the GM matter. The Senate bill by Democrats Edward Markey of Massachusetts and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and the House measure from Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., would require automakers to report to NHTSA more information about potential defects and direct the agency to make the information it receives about safety problems easier for the public to view.

GM spent $2.9 million on federal lobbying during the first quarter of this year, according to the company’s most recent congressional reports, using its own employees as well as several outside lobbyists.

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